ND returns solid pitching, defense
Zach Klonsinski | Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Despite reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, the feeling around the clubhouse in the final hours before Notre Dame’s 2016 season gets underway is anything but satisfied.
“[It] wasn’t like we won the College World Series,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said Tuesday afternoon, just 36 hours before his squad goes wheels-up for Santa Clara, California. “[We] got to a regional, which was great, got our program back to a level of play that we feel like it should be at, which is great, but we just want to continue to get better.
“We want to continue to try to become as good as we can be, and with this particular squad, that could potentially be a pretty high place.”
The core of the 2015 squad that finished the season 37-23 overall and 17-13 in the ACC remains in place as the Irish head west to open their season with a three-game series against Santa Clara.
The Irish return four of the five pitchers who threw at least 60 innings last season: senior right-hander Nick McCarty, juniors left-hander Scott Tully and right-hander Ryan Smoyer and sophomore right-hander Brandon Bielak.
Additionally, of the eight position players who appeared in 45 games or more last season, Notre Dame returns six: seniors shortstop Lane Richards, first baseman Zak Kutsulis and outfielder Kyle Richardson as well as juniors third baseman Kyle Fiala, second baseman Cavan Biggio and catcher Ryan Lidge. A seventh, graduated outfielder Robert Youngdahl, is still with the program as a volunteer assistant coach.
“The pitching staff, I think it’s deep, I think it’s experienced and I think it’s talented,” Aoki said. “But I think you could use those same adjectives for our infield. That fits. Our infield and our pitching I think probably are the heart and soul and the strength to our team.”
All four infielders — from third to first: Fiala, Richards, Rawlings Gold Glove winner Biggio and Kutsulis — return for a Notre Dame defense that led all of college baseball with 75 double plays in just 60 games last season, as well as Johnny Bench Award-candidate Lidge behind the plate.
“I continue to marvel at the guys in our infield the way they just continue to work, continue to develop and continue to get better,” Aoki said. “ … Zach, Cavan, Lane and Kyle, I think all four of them are better players. And I think that that’s pretty remarkable considering the fact that they played at an extremely high level last year.”
One area Notre Dame will see some turnover in, however, is the back-end of the starting rotation.
“When you look at certain guys, some of these guys are going to be in a little bigger role,” Aoki said. “If you look at [sophomores right-hander] Peter Solomon and [left-hander] Sean Guenther, those are kids who were in the back end of our bullpen last year and are going to be at the front end to start the year this year. I don’t know that they’ve necessarily improved by leaps and bounds, but I think they’ve been able to adjust, make the adjustments to the starter’s role versus the closer’s role.”
Guenther led the Irish last season with five saves while compiling a 1-3 record, 2.72 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings of work over 27 appearances. Solomon notched four saves of his own, throwing 19 1/3 innings on the way to a 2-0 record, 1.40 ERA and 19 strikeouts in nine appearances. Both will see their time in the starting rotation, Aoki said.
Because the team believes it can compete with anyone in the country, Aoki said the improvement he sees is more on the mental side of the game.
“I think our whole team has just done a really good job of embracing the whole idea of just trying to get a little bit better every day,” Aoki said. “This competition isn’t necessarily against our opponents so much as it is ourselves, just pushing ourselves every day to try to maximize our potential. It’s really gratifying to watch these guys just go about the work of doing that.”
This weekend’s three-game set against the Broncos (26-28, 12-15 West Coast in 2015) is set to begin at 9 p.m. Friday at Stephen Schott Stadium. Going into the series, Aoki said he wants his team to start playing with a present-focused mindset.
“I think it’s very much the same as it was last year, which is to take the game one pitch at a time,” Aoki said. “Don’t worry about the past, don’t worry about the future, just be completely obsessed with the present, and just try to play as well as we are capable of playing.
“ … We’re not playing the game against the opponent. The opponent really is irrelevant. It’s us trying to maximize our individual and collective ability, and I think that’s going to be the message from the first day of the season to the very last day of the season, which hopefully is in late June.”